The National Gallery hosts a fine collection of Western European art dating from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, which will happily engage you for several hours. The gallery’s old building, divided into Beit, Milltown and Dargan wings and entered from Merrion Square West, has now been joined by the Millennium Wing, giving access from Clare Street, which hosts major temporary exhibitions around its striking, sky-lit atrium. The resulting layout of the gallery, however, can be confusing, especially after a recent rehang, so the first thing to do when you go in is pick up a free floor-plan leaflet. In a prime location under the Millennium Wing’s glass roof, there’s a good self-service café, with a restaurant upstairs serving lunch and afternoon tea. The gallery also offers classical and contemporary concerts, lectures and workshops, which are detailed in the quarterly Gallery News (available in the foyer).
Level 1 is chiefly given over to Irish art from the seventeenth century onwards, including a large gallery in the Millennium Wing devoted to the twentieth century. The real stand-out in the Irish collection, however, is the Yeats Museum (Level 1, Beit Wing), which traces the development of Jack B. Yeats (1871–1957), younger brother of the writer W.B. Yeats, from an unsentimental illustrator of everyday scenes to an expressive painter in abstract, unmixed colours. It’s also worth looking in on the National Portrait Gallery (Level 1, Dargan Wing), a chronological survey of Irish worthies that includes a rather sci-fi head of Bono from 2003 by Louis le Brocquy. In the mezzanine Print Gallery (Beit Wing), as well as temporary exhibitions throughout the year, watercolours by Turner are exhibited every January, when the light is low enough for these delicate works.
Highlights of Level 2 include Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus, the earliest known picture by Velázquez (c.1617–18); Vermeer’s Woman Writing a Letter, with her Maid, one of only 35 accepted works by the artist, with his characteristic use of white light from the window accentuating the woman’s heated emotions (both Milltown Wing); Caravaggio’s dynamic The Taking of Christ, in which the artist portrayed himself as a passive spectator on the right of the picture, holding a lamp (Beit Wing); and the “Grand Tour in Rome” room in the Dargan Wing: among some diverting views of Rome and various Irish gentlemen who had themselves immortalized in the Eternal City, don’t miss Reynolds’ fascinating Parody of Raphael’s “School of Athens”, which purveys some familiar Irish stereotypes to ridicule the Grand Tourists.